The prophets of doom have been increasingly proving themselves right in the media world. The print media in the developed world find themselves in a deep crisis. They have suffered a two-pronged attack, from the global economic slowdown as well as the growing challenge of the no-longer ‘New' Media. It is an irony that in an era where the digital divide across the world and within societies is a major concern, developed countries or ‘mature media markets' are the worst affected by a revolutionary technological development, the worldwide web and the Internet, powered by broadband, 3G, and so forth.

A study in contrast

In the developed world, a number of newspapers have been pushed into bankruptcy. Others have laid off large numbers of employees in an attempt to stem unaffordable losses. Thousands of journalists and non-journalist employees of newspaper offices have been benched or retrenched. Newspaper circulations and readership have dropped, and are dropping, right across the developed world.

And readers are being increasingly attracted to newspapers online. The positive news is that good newspapers like The New York Times, The Guardian, TheFinancial Times and The Wall Street Journal now provide better, richer, and more diverse content in their Internet editions and on platforms such as the iPhone. The bad news is that the print media are yet to find a viable, let alone profitable, revenue model for their Internet journalism. Although some media organisations, led by Rupert Murdoch and The New York Times, are moving towards charging in some way for their online content, they face the harsh reality that news has become “increasingly a free good, provided online without charge,” to quote former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

This is in striking contrast to the situation in several regions of the less-developed world, led by the Asian giants, China and India, and also some South-East Asian nations. The global economic slowdown has adversely affected media organisations in these countries also. Their newspaper and television industries suffered a 25 to 30 per cent decline in advertisement revenue during the worst part of the slowdown. Yet circulation and readership of newspapers have maintained a steady and in some cases rapid growth.

There has also been rapid growth of Internet use and broadband development in many of these countries — with China setting a scorching pace with its 385 million Internet users, over 90 per cent of whom are served by broadband. These trends should help keep the news media in these countries in good physical trim and primed to enter the next phase of media development with some confidence. In terms of Internet use and penetration of the population and also broadband development, India with an estimated 80 million users and indifferent bandwidth in most parts of the country lags far behind China and South-East Asian nations. But this below-par growth gives more time to the traditional news media, especially newspapers, to get their act together.

Another first

The Hindu was among the first Indian newspapers to launch a website as early as 1995. The very next year, the weekly international print edition of the paper (in magazine format) carrying select news items under different heads mainly for the benefit of Indian readers living in different countries was discontinued and the content went online. The Hindu's Associate Vice President, H.R. Mohan, who heads the Systems department, recalls: “After sending the pages of the weekly, we were all waiting for the response. And then comes a reader's response. It read: ‘We are very happy to receive ‘Mount Road Mahavishnu.'”

The websites of The Hindu and other Group publications, notably Business Line, have come a long way since then. Over the years, these websites have built a considerable following internationally and increasingly within India. Internet Editor G. Ananthakrishnan says: “The Beta site, beta.thehindu.com, received 8.1 million Page Views and 1.7 million Unique Visitors in February 2010. The corresponding figures for the existing site of The Hindu, www.thehindu.com, are 6.8 million and 2.7 million.”

Changing profile

In the beginning, some 90 per cent of the visitors to the website were non-resident Indians (NRIs). That reader profile took several years to restructure itself. Indian visitors account today for 40 per cent of the total visitors; readers in the U.S., mostly Indians, for 40 per cent; and others for 20 per cent. Print newspapers are expected to remain the most preferred vehicle of communication for very large numbers of readers in a context where access to computers and the Internet is still low. But the inevitable will happen here too, nobody knows precisely when.

Beyond a point, technological advance, with its complex implications for society, will not slow down to allow the traditional media the luxury of time and space to adjust. The explosive growth of mobile telephony in India – the world's fastest growing major market for mobile phone voice services — makes this clear. Accelerated growth of online access to information and knowledge will surely compel Indian newspapers and also broadcast television to work harder to find a successful business model.

‘Open Page', a winner

This brings me to The Hindu's Open Page. After it became a full page recently, the number of contributions, and letters to the editor commenting on them have been increasing by the day. Editor-in-Chief N. Ram looks ahead to opening up much more space for readers online. “One clear benefit online editions can provide,” he says, “is the scope this gives for accommodating more and longer articles from readers. There need be no space constraints, as in the print edition. We now do a lot of balancing. We often have to forego good items, national, international, business, sports, science and technology, and so on. To provide a full Open Page, we had to sacrifice some features.” Opening up new space online will throw up more challenges, especially because digital-media-savvy journalists need to be found, trained, and employed. “There should be some filtering,” Ram opines, “what is known as ‘moderation' of comment on the web. For this, the usual norms apply. There can be no place, in print or online, for offensive, abusive, and obscene content, or for defamatory writing. We also don't want to inflict on our readers what is known as ‘noise.' Authenticity and accuracy must be reasonably ensured. These are the basic requirements.”

There are huge opportunities out there in the digital realm. Comment may also be invited on more of the articles published. “We are working on it,” says Ram.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in